Transitioning from Weekend Warrior to Tour-Level Pro

By Ken Smith

It’s been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For years I have approached tournament fishing utilizing that very game-plan, and to some extent I have been successful. I have a couple of team and a BFL angler of the year crowns, but the events I’ve fished have been one or two day events, usually on lakes and rivers that I have significant experience on.

With an eye on the FLW tour in the very near future, I wanted to get a better sense of how other guys make the transition. By “other guys” I don’t mean journeymen that are out there trying to make cuts - I wanted to talk to a champion, a guy who knows more than most about competing and winning on the big stage. Luckily for me I had one handy: Yamamoto Pro, Oregon State Beaver, 2002 Bassmaster Classic Champion, 2002 FLW AOY, 2003 Bassmaster AOY, 2003 ESPN ESPY Best Outdoor Athlete, 2007 FLW AOY and with career winnings of well over two million dollars, our very own Jay Yelas.

When I called Jay with the idea of this article he was immediately on board. He was heading into an event, but he graciously agreed to give me some time each day after he finished practicing and then again each day after the tournament was over to share his thoughts. I first caught up with him after a day of business meetings (yes, professional fishing is very much a business) in Dallas before heading toward Florida for the first FLW Tour event of 2015 at Toho. The first thing I wanted to gain some insight into how he approached a multiple-day event from start to finish, and the first thing I asked him was what he already knew about Toho.

“The last time I was on Toho was the FLW in February 2008 – it was probably only the second time since 2001 that I’d been there. Dean Rojas caught the 45-2 there in 2001 and I had my personal biggest tournament stringer that week as well with 36-11. I weighed the biggest fish ever at that tournament, an 11-11,” Jay recalled.

This put him on his way to a 4th place finish in a tournament which broke almost every five fish record in Bassmaster history.

“That tournament was a little earlier than this one, the middle of January, but like this year we caught them right on a full moon (the full moon will be Thursday night of this year’s event). Looking at the weather, we are going to be on a warming trend with temperatures in the 80’s by the end of the week. Sight fishing could once again play a big role in this tournament.”

I asked Jay if he’d been working the phones prior to the cut-off two weeks earlier.

“I’ve talked to one friend who lives in the Lakeland area,” he replied, “but mostly it was a social call. He shared that it seemed that more of the better stringers were coming from the lower end of Lake Kissimmee – Toho is connected to Kissimmee by a series of locks and channels with two smaller lakes in between. I know I’m going to spend my first day in Toho. Most of my wins and best finishes in tournaments have come from going against the grain. You’re fishing multiple days and you’re splitting your fish with multiple anglers, so it can get difficult to stretch your fish out for four days.”

Jay went on to explain that when he can, he likes to get away from the crowd and find groups of fish other anglers might be overlooking. It doesn’t happen often, maybe a third of the time, but when it does, Jay seizes that window of opportunity to fish for the win. He admitted he was definitely going to be looking in the area where he caught his giant stringer in 2001, but he was also going in with an open mind.

“One of the hardest things for anglers around the country to do is come to Florida to compete,” Jay explained. “It’s unlike fishing anywhere else. Most places you can go fish creeks, main lake points, secondary points, but in Florida all the lakes are shallow bowls. With few exceptions, there simply are not a variety of features to fish. You’re fishing vegetation and there is the added complication that they are constantly spraying it to keep it under control. Not only does the cover change from year to year, it can literally change from day to day.

“Florida lakes are more spot fishing than any other lake I know of, and because of this, when the right vegetation mixes together at the right depth, everything comes together and it can be magical. But you can also go for miles and hours and not catch much of anything. I’ve already qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup through the Rayovac championship, so I can treat this year a little differently – I don’t want to start out in a big hole early like I did last year at Okeechobee, but if given the chance at any event this year, I will be able to take chances trying to win that in previous years would have been harder to take.

I asked Jay what he wanted to accomplish each day of practice and how he approached each day.

“I really want to get a sense of water color, what vegetation is in different areas and the spawning stage the fish are in. These fish sometimes start spawning as early as the fall here, so you really have to go into a tournament with an open mind. One of the biggest mistakes you can make telling the fish how you are going to catch them. So day one I want to look for offshore hydrilla. Tournaments are won out away from the bank in hydrilla beds. You can catch 10-12 pounds beating the bank and sometimes you’ll need a few of those fish, but they are fallback fish – you’re not going to win the event with them.

“I want to look for feeding fish for the majority of the practice period and if I see fish on the beds here and there I will spend the last day just looking for bedded fish to catch. Since they typically don’t spend multiple days on a specific bed it generally makes sense to look for the fish you are going to try to catch the next day, not days from now.”

Since I knew Jay would be practicing on a huge body of water with only a few days to look around, I asked him how he went about breaking it all down.

“Generally I try to fish an area day one, then a different area on day two. Day three is spent expanding on whichever of the two looked most promising to me, but again, I try to remain fluid. I always try to let my intuition guide me. The other thing that has changed over the years in upper-level tournament fishing is that you have to absolutely sack them on days one and two to make the cut. It makes no sense to conserve fish for days three and four if you are going to be driving home. With a cut from a field of 150+ to 20 after two days you lay it all on the line, and then they cut again to 10. So first, you have to catch them, and second, continue to fish new stuff looking for more fish for the next day.”

I asked Jay what might be on the front deck of his boat first thing in the morning.

“Everything,” he admitted. “Probably a dozen rods, certainly flipping stuff. When they start spawning the reaction bite pretty well dies, so I need a jig, a Flappin’ Hog, a PsychoDad for punching, several colors of Senkos, and then in case the fish are more post spawn I will have some moving baits like a Midasu lipless crankbaits. I’ll always a couple of topwaters on the deck as well, probably a Shibuki popper and the new YamaFrog.”

I left Jay for the long drive to Florida, but caught up with him after his practice days on Toho.